Last week the Wall Street Journal published a column by two scientists, Jerry A. Coyne and Anna I. Krylov, detailing their travails in trying to get scientific journals to publish their “commentary about how modern science is being compromised by a de-emphasis on merit.” They were met with rejection, one editor calling the essay “downright hurtful,” and another one writing that “the concept of merit . . . has been widely and legitimately attacked as hollow.” It finally was published in the Journal of Controversial Ideas, which champions “free inquiry,” a fast-disappearing virtue in our age of “woke” intolerance.
The politicization of academic disciplines in the humanities or history or the “human sciences” is bad enough, but its dangers are nothing compared to the corruption of the hard sciences by illiberal identity politics. The roots of this dangerous ideology lie in the notion of “equity,” a fancy word for the equality of results. Both “equity” and ideological distortions of science have a long history of destructive outcomes.
The notion of absolute equality or radical egalitarianism was born 2500 years ago with democracy and its extension of political rights to non-elites. As Aristotle defined radical egalitarianism, “it arises from the notion that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects; because men are equally free, they claim to be absolutely equal.” As such it is inherently tyrannical, for given the unequal distribution of talent, brains, opportunity, industry, and sheer luck, only by unjustly reducing the equality of some can absolute equality exist for all.
And as James Madison said in his discussion of “faction,” the clashing “political interests and parties” that can threaten our freedom result from “unequal faculties of acquiring property”––just as we see today with “equity” and “disparate impacts” and the redistribution of wealth in order to mitigate what one faction deems are unfair distinctions based on a spurious “merit” that makes some wealthier and more privileged than others. “Equality of outcome” thus exacerbated this inherently contentious and divisive dynamic.
We should not accept, then, the injection of a political aim like radical egalitarianism––which has a long track-record of bloody failure––into an enterprise supposedly devoted to the scientific method for establishing the facts of nature.
Similarly, the corruption of academic disciplines, including the hard sciences, has a long history of destructive consequences. The authors point to Lysenkoism, after the Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko, who in the Thirties preached unscientific ideas such as acquired traits, and the claim that modern genetics was a pseudoscience. Enforced by Soviet and later Chinese communist tyranny, “Implementation of his theories in Soviet and, later, Chinese agriculture led to famines and the starvation of millions. Russian biology still hasn’t recovered.”
And in this country, starting at the turn of the 20th century, “scientific racism” or “Social Darwinism,” and its practical application in eugenics, was prominent in our most prestigious universities. Thousands of women deemed “unfit” to reproduce were forcibly sterilized, and these pseudo-scientific theories gave Jim Crow segregation and bigoted immigration policies a patina of science that deflected their illiberal and antihuman motives. Worse yet, these ideas significantly influenced Nazi anti-Semitic policies and atrocities like the Holocaust.
More recently, our universities have seen the corruption of history by fanciful theories like Afrocentrism or “systemic racism” dressed up in the protocols of historiography or political philosophy, but in fact subordinated to political ideologies and factional interests, especially identity politics.
Earlier in the Nineties, academic feminism went down the rabbit-hole of the “Great Goddess” and its fake history fabricated from myth and the abuse of academic archaeology. This deity was allegedly worshipped in prehistoric “Old Europe.” Like the Golden Age of Hesiod, this was a time of idyllic harmony with nature, vegetarianism, peace, nature-worship, and communal egalitarianism. And it was matriarchal. This dubious history became a New Age fad in popular culture, its Noble-Savage Indianism and romantic environmentalism making it attractive for leftist doctrinaire feminists and romantic environmentalists.
As with other fake history, this fad flourished in universities, especially in Women’s Studies departments and programs. But traditional academic disciplines like archaeology and religious studies also lent their prestige and authority to a belief system that resembles a cult rather than the product of empirically based research.
For example, the work of the late UCLA professor of prehistoric archaeology, Marija Gimbutas, has been central to this dodgy academic sub-field. Especially important was her study of prehistoric statuettes like the Venus of Willendorf and its exaggerated breasts and buttocks, of which more than 80 intact or fragmentary artefacts have survived.
Although there are several different hypothetical explanations for these sculptures’ functions, Gimbutas accepted and encouraged the radical feminist assertion that they were evidence for the existence of a Goddess worshipped in prehistoric Europe. From this interpretation a whole fanciful history was created to explain not just the details of this imagined civilization, but the story of its demise at the hands of Indo-European horse-riding invaders called “Kurgans,” who conquered and occupied Old Europe, and sowed it with all the cultural, religious, and political dysfunctions of the West: slavery, colonialism, war, private property, patriarchy, inequality, and especially war. Notice how this fantasy dovetails with the Marxoid animus against, inter alia, colonialism and private property, that is central to leftist and “woke” ideology.
Gimbutas’ credentials and authority, moreover, sanctioned proponents of this myth-history to claim that it is fact-based. For example, one feminist champion of the Goddess, Merlin Stone, maintained that “archaeological, mythological and historical evidence . . . has proved that Her religion has existed and flourished in the Near East and Middle East for thousands of years.” But this historical fact has been rejected and suppressed by scholars because of their “sexual and religious biases.” Gimbutas herself made similar claims, evoking her “lifelong study” and the “preponderance of evidence” for the Kurgan invasion.
Yet few archaeologists and paleo-historians accept this history. In the preface of one textbook actually sympathetic to the Goddess theory, the authors acknowledge the “underlying tension between describing (the data, the interpretation, the past) and transforming these through a feminist lens.” The empirical evidence simply doesn’t exist to make the thesis persuasive.
This brings us to Coyne and Krylov’s warning about the “wholesale and unhealthy incursion of ideology into science,” and activists’ calls to “decolonize scientific fields, to reduce the influence of what’s called ‘Western science’ and adopt indigenous ‘ways of knowing . . . . But these ‘ways of knowing’ aren’t coequal to modern science, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise.”
As a result scientific research is degraded both to justify politicization and deflect scrutiny from shoddy scholarship and missing evidence. The Goddess researchers also relied on softening the rationalist rigor of real research by justifying non-scientific subjective qualities like “intuition” that, as Gimbutas wrote, complements “lots (sic) of evidence” by making “you feel that you are right in what you are saying.”
No doubt Trofim Lysenko, American social Darwinists, and Nazi theorists of racial inferiority “felt” they were right too. But to protect against such atrocities of scientism, the rest of us need empirical evidence that can stand up to the scrutiny of peers and critics to avoid confirmation bias or politicization.
As historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin said of “intuitive historiography,” “In the end it is only scrupulous examination of the evidence of the past and the systematic self-critical piecing together of whatever can be empirically established, that can confirm one hypothesis and weaken or rule out others . . . Without reliable empirical evidence, the most richly imaginative efforts to recover the past must remain guesswork and breed fictions and romance.”
There are numerous other dangers to such corruption of science, including the damage to K-12 education from bad ideas that are incubated in colleges and universities, and then trickle down into those schools’ curricula, given that public school most teachers are credentialed by higher educational institutions.
But the worst effect of peddling corrupted science and fake history is that it does nothing for those whom its adherents claim to help, and deflects attention from their problems. Rene Denfeld in her 1995 said of the Goddess fad,
“Feminism today has taken a distressing step away from the path to equality onto a detour down the yellow brick road. Feminist leaders are now telling women to perform the modern equivalent of the Sioux Indian Ghost Dance, to spend our energies frantically calling up a mythical golden age in an effort to create a dreamlike future––because such rituals are better suited to our superior nature than fighting directly with men for our rights.”
So too with Afrocentrism and “systemic racism” that benefit not black people in need, but the cognitive elites who monetize these notions for personal gain. Letting destructive ideas like “equity” rather than merit determine who gets to study science will have similar malign effect both on our fellow citizens and the scientific disciplines compromised by politics and ideology.